Madness dropped?

I’ve been involved in an exchange of ideas with Rob Vitaro for some time now. Rob’s most recent post is worth reading. He makes some very good points, which is about par for the course. As I told Rob in a comment; I audibly guffawed in a couple of places while reading it. He even got a “golf clap” at one stage in acknowledgement of a point well made.

Rob publicly pondered his reasons for continuing the discussion and ultimately decided to carry on because

it is probably the most civil discourse I’ve had with a non-Christian (nut-ball term aside), and for the sake of reason and logic it shall continue.

Wow. I can’t imagine what types of discourse you’ve had with atheists if I qualify as civil. Anyway, this led me to ponder my own reasons for continuing and I realized they’re not that deep; it’s fun, challenging and I learn stuff. So, on with the show.

First of all, I’d like to highlight the “golf clap” point that Rob made. Rob originally said that he was on solid psychological ground because there are a lot of people who believe the same things he does. I argued that “weight of numbers does not a solid position make”. The problem arose when, later in the same post, I wrote that Rob was on shaky ground because there were four and half billion people alive today who think he’s wrong. According to my own argument, weight of numbers does not make the four and a half billion people right. I could claim that I was trying further address his original weight of numbers point, but in rereading my post, I don’t think I was. So Rob, I acknowledge that point. You’re right; you can’t claim sanity because a bunch of people believe the same thing you do and I can’t claim insanity because a bunch of people don’t believe what you do. I think I made that too easy for you, but you handled it skillfully nonetheless.

While we’re on the topic of insanity, I’d like to conditionally retract my claim of madness. One of the conditions is that I’d like Rob to clarify exactly what form of communication he has with Jesus. Rob’s communication might be something completely different than I got from his writings. If, for example, Rob clears his mind and thinks about a decision he has to make and the answer “pops into his head” then I’ll drop the crazy thing and acknowledge my mistake. I obviously won’t acknowledge that Rob is receiving messages from Jesus, but I will cede that the “crazy” label might not fit.

I will point out that I think Rob didn’t do a wonderful job of rebutting the crazy claim. He acknowledged that if the other party in his communication was anyone other than Jesus, things would look pretty grim:

I agree in part, though: replace Jesus with Abe Lincoln in that paragraph and yes, I’d look crazy!

He follows this right up with:

A psychological condition is almost always accompanied with impaired functioning so much so that a lower quality of life is the result. This is not the case for most Christians

I think the flaw here is pretty obvious; if the only thing that changed was that he claimed Abe Lincoln was communicating with him instead of Jesus then seemingly Rob would still be able to function in society. If he acted the same way, did the same good deeds and was the same guy in general, wouldn’t he be just fine? I’ll give Rob some leeway here and I’m really trying to let the crazy thing go, but that logic just didn’t cut it for me.

Then after some reasonably tame responses, Rob whips out a comment that just about floored me.

Well, this may blow darwinator away, but I already know this all too well: I’m well aware that he could be completely right, that everything I believe is in my mind and not real.

Blown away didn’t quite cover it. I hadn’t expected this at all. Rob writes with such confidence and conviction that I was certain there was no room for doubt in his mind. I admire his strength in admitting this and would probably just like to see it acknowledged a little more in his writing. However, that’s not really my call. Can’t hurt to ask though, can it?

Rob quickly moves in to strike after throwing me off balance:

But here is where being “smart and deluded” bites darwinator in the butt. Christians are always the ones who are asked, “what if everything you believe in is wrong? Can you even admit that?” Ok, I just did. Now it’s your turn, darwinator. What if everything you believe in is wrong? Can you admit that you could be wrong? What if you are smart and deluded?

I direct Rob’s attention to my Reasonable Atheism post. I can (and, the post shows, did) admit doubt. Certainly everything I believe could be wrong. The atheist position and, more generally, the rational position requires that evidence be evaluated before coming to conclusions. If evidence were presented for the God hypothesis, I’d certainly believe in God. I imagine the religious among those reading this will respond that they too require evidence. I guess the difference then becomes one of standards. A fatally flawed document authored 1950 years ago does not constitute evidence. If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that it doesn’t even come close.

You see, I firmly believe atheism takes faith to adhere to. It’s just as much a gamble as believing in any other religion. In the end, only one of us can be right.

I understand Rob’s point about faith here and disagree with it. I hope the Reasonable Atheism post explains why. I do see what Rob’s getting at here, but the word “faith” is inappropriate. It’s a trick commonly used to make atheists seem just like religious folk. Being an atheist takes courage (for reasons Rob points out later), strength of character and above all being an atheist requires you to be honest with yourself. You don’t get to believe things that you want to be true. You have to believe the things that you actually think are true. Whenever a loved one dies, it would certainly be nice to think that they’ve gone to a better place. Wanting something don’t necessarily make it so. It doesn’t even make it likely.

I also asked Rob to consider the fact that his beliefs are an accident of his upbringing which, in turn, is an accident of the lottery determining when and where he was born. I was very disappointed in Rob’s response. It’s actually the first thing he’s written that I’ve been disappointed in. I feel like he dodged the intent of the question.

Ah, but darwinator hasn’t thought this through. If I had been born at any other point in time or location, I wouldn’t be me, Rob, I’d be someone else! Even if my parents conceived a day later, I’d be someone else. That’s undeniable, sorry.

I’ll try to rephrase to get an honest answer. I’m looking for a scenario where Rob was raised in a different faith. Say his parents or guardians converted to Islam when Rob was a child. There are other scenarios but the point is that I’d like Rob to think about the impact of the ideas he was exposed to in his formative years. It might not be a question he will answer, but if he’s honest, it’s pretty obvious that without the exposure to Christianity there’s no way he could be a Christian. He could be a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Scientologist or any one of literally thousands of other religions. He believes the things he does simply because of the “luck of the draw”. How can he explain that?

The following quote highlighted for me the deep, fundamental differences in the way that Rob and I look at things.

You see, when darwinator looks at the universe, he finds it awe-inspiring, but also an accident. Huh? How can an accident give you wonder? When I slip and fall, the only thing I wonder about is how clumsy can one person be? I find that the only things that seem to give us wonder are the things that are created.

The wonder and awe I feel come from understanding how things work. To truly understand how evolution produced the biodiversity we see around us … well, it’s very hard to describe the feeling. Something so simple and elegant is attractive to the engineer in me. Something so powerful and creative appeals to my artistic side. The whole process of evolution is simply beautiful to me. It’s amazing. The idea that everything has a purpose in an evolved system, sometimes obvious, sometimes not, is satisfying to me in a way that the stories about divine creation aren’t.

Side notes:

  • The hardest thing for me about the current religious debates in the US (intelligent design, etc) is that they’re missing out on the beauty and elegance that is evolution. In many cases, they’re missing out on it willfully.
  • I also bristle at the use of “accident” and “random chance” when talking about evolution, because evolution is the opposite of random chance. However, that’s a topic for another rant on another day.

To truly understand (if the tenous grasp I have can be called understanding) the scale of the universe is mind blowing. Humanity has always had a tendency to find God in the gaps of human knowledge. It isn’t honest. It’s also not a sensible position to take in the face of the inexorable march of knowledge. Those gaps will shrink and disappear. Where will God hide then?

Now this next section got me a little riled up, so I might be letting off some steam. Apologies in advance.

But insignificant? How does that make my existence beautiful? How does that give me hope? How would that encourage me to go on? What’s the point of living? It’s all an accident anyway, right?! But that’s “darwinator’s paradoxical answer to the meaning of life:” You’re tiny, insignificant, and a product of random chance: you’re beautiful! And when you die, NOTHING! Hooray for the Great Accident!

Our cosmic (in)significance should have no impact at all on how beautiful your life is, Rob. Your life is beautiful because you have a wife, family and friends that love you. Why do you need to get “hope” or “reasons to go on” from a creator of the universe? Live your life because it’s the only one you have! How can your life only be worth living if you get everlasting paradise at the end of it? Your life is beautiful for the many reasons you list in your blog posts. Why on Earth would you need more than the reasons you already have?

Here’s what it comes down to, darwinator. If you’re right, if this is all an accident, and everything I believe is in my head, then we both lose in the biggest joke ever.

No we don’t. We don’t lose at all. You had the chance to have a wonderful life, filled with the love of wife, family and friends. I’m pretty sure you don’t consider that a losing proposition.

But if I’m right, I will inherit an eternity of peace and an end to suffering, living with the Creator of the universe. You lose there, too.

The fallacy of “belief as virtue” would require a whole separate thread to deal with. Suffice it to say that if God exists and conforms to your conception of him, then I certainly lose. You’ve provided an abridged version of Pascal’s wager which is as compelling as it is logically sound; that is to say, neither. I’ll deal with the logical failures below.

I’m not a gambling man, but I think I’ve made the smarter choice. With your stance, either way you’re screwed.

You’re right (as discussed above), I can never get access to paradise after death but your “smarter choice” intrigues me. It seems to imply that you weighed the situation (as per Pascal’s wager) and figured that there was no real downside to believing. That if you’re wrong, well, there’s no real cost (maybe some small opportunity cost) and if you’re right, jackpot! However, the problem with this is that it brings mercenary economic considerations to bear on a problem that is, ultimately, about what is true. A cost benefit analysis isn’t a convincing argument to accept religious doctrine and a “choice” based on such won’t convince the big guy upstairs.

You believe something because you’re convinced it’s true.  You don’t believe something because you’ll punished if it turns out you’re wrong.  Otherwise, the obvious extension to Pascal’s wager is to simply believe in whichever God has the most heinous version of hell (to minimize your downside).  I think it’s easy to see where this leads.

I look forward to reading Rob’s thoughts but must admit that my intensity is flagging. Rob has made some wonderful points and I do think I’ve learned some things. I feel like we’re getting very close to the limits of where discussion can take us and look forward to returning to my usual laziness rather than all this typing.


One Response to “Madness dropped?”

  1. The Website of Rob Vitaro Says:

    Madness reaches the inevitable impasse

    The internet is an amazing platform to get an exchange of thoughts and ideas going, to have conversations with people you’d normally never encounter in everyday life.  Such has been the case with darwinator, an atheist who somehow one day happe…

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